Is Duterte the world’s most popular president?

By Sara Gomez Armas

Manila, Oct 21 (efe-epa).- In the midst of a serious health and economic crisis, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has achieved approval ratings of 91 percent, a new record in his more than four years in office that makes him the world’s most popular leader. But are statistics reliable?

Pulse Asia published earlier this month the first survey on the president’s management since the covid-19 pandemic was declared in March, with a “shocking” and “unbelievable” result, Ronald Holmes, president of the polling company, said in a recent forum with foreign press in Manila.

The Philippines is among the 20 countries most affected by COVID-19, with more than 360,000 infections, and entered a recession for the first time in three decades after suffering one of the world’s longest and strictest confinements, slowing economic activity and leaving millions unemployed.

However, the same Pulse Asia survey shows 92 percent of Filipinos believe Duterte’s management of the pandemic has been correct, something analysts attribute to “baseline bias”: at a time of global economic debacle, with more than 1 million dead from the pandemic, Filipinos have accommodated expectations. The thought of “if could be better” is replaced by that of “it could be worse.”

“All these things are all the negatives that in any other situation might have knocked his numbers down but the difference right now is there is this broad fear that this is a pandemic… ‘Yes, I don’t have a job, yes we’ve had to depend on government handouts’. Okay, I will overweigh my survival versus all of these variables, which in other times would have mattered,” said Bob Herrera-Lim, an expert on Southeast Asia at consulting firm Teneo.

Duterte’s approval is also explained by the time the survey was conducted, in September, when strict confinements had already been relaxed in the Philippines, many Filipinos were able to return to work. Thousands of poor families had already received financial aid from the government, which has distributed $4 billion among the most disadvantaged.

In fact, the president’s numbers, four percentage points above the 87 percent recorded in December 2019, has been boosted by the lowest economic-social group, where the president’s score improved by 11 percent.

Quarterly polls that should have been released in March and June could not be released precisely because of the quarantine, when Filipino discontent was most noticeable and the government’s response weakest.

Philippine political scientist Richard Heydarian said Duterte is a “master of performative politics,” that is, he takes forceful, populist measures, such as distributing money or imposing strict confinements, which give the impression the government is not sitting idle, although the virus hasn’t been contained.

“Chaos is the best ladder for a populist. Where there is anxiety and worry, they show themselves as saviors and Duterte has done a great job presenting himself as a parent that people can trust,” Heydarian said.

For this analyst, the “fear factor” cannot be discarded from the equation at a juncture in which the president himself encouraged the police to “shoot to kill” anyone who skipped quarantine. The drug war has claimed the lives of thousands of innocents; critics of the president have been jailed or tried on “fabricated” charges, political activists are being murdered and freedom of the press severed.

“How can someone answer honestly about liking or disliking the president if his neighbor has been the victim of an extrajudicial execution?” Heydarian said.

According to Holmes, the president of Pulse Asia – a firm that has been conducting these surveys for more than 20 years and is considered a reliable source in the country – the survey is based on truthful information, as its pollsters are trained to detect lies and discard them.

In addition to the shadow of the pandemic, the president’s management has been affected by irregularities involving allied politicians and bureaucratic positions appointed by him in customs or immigration, including a notorious corruption scandal at PhilHeath, the public health insurance corporation, with an embezzlement case of $300 million.

“While the President or national official is not held accountable, what’s paradoxical is the President or national official may get credit from the things he or she has not done,” Holmes described.

In contrast, the president does “get credit” for the efforts of local or regional governments, even though his measures are outside the decisions of the national government. “For many Filipinos, the government is an abstraction. If they get help, they don’t wonder where it comes from,” he said. EFE-EPA


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